Opening doors to education for children with special needs in Lebanon

It’s dark on the steps outside Hussein’s house where he stands with his grandmother Chadya. Unlike many his age, this 6-year-old isn’t that afraid of the dark. Electrical shortages across Lebanon and improper infrastructure in the Palestinian refugee camp, Shatila, mean darkness is common, especially during winter when, lack of proper drainage allows water to puddle up everywhere and streets can be transformed into rivers and lakes.

Despite their difficult living conditions, this family is motivated by the promise of a better future—a better future for them and especially a better future for Hussein—and they know that the path to a brighter future begins with education.

“Education is all we can have as Palestinians,” says Chadya, who takes care of her grandson, Hussein, while his mother works during the day. “It is our only weapon,” she adds. But, even this remaining “weapon” was out of reach for Hussein and other children with special needs.  

The public schools in his area were hesitant to accept him, not because he cannot do well at school, but because he has a physical condition that affects his mobility and his ability to communicate. Hussein was born with a laxity in his left hand and left leg due to the insufficiency of oxygen during his birth. Although he can listen and understand normally, the condition makes it hard for him to speak in a way that is easy for others to understand.

The public schools asked Hussein’s parents to register him in a private school for children with disabilities, but such schools were well beyond what his parents can afford, threatening to leave him out of education all together.

“Hussein was rejected three times,” remembers his mother, Rima. “You cannot imagine how worried I was,” she says. “I could not accept that he would stay home and not become a student!”

World Vision responds to the needs of children with disabilities

The inclusion of Hussein and other children with special needs is a priority. As a result, World Vision launched a new project, called “New Perspectives for Children with Special Learning Needs” funded by the European Union (EU) in Lebanon. This 24-month project (which began in February 2014) contributes to creating an inclusive environment for children with disabilities in the educational programmes within the Palestinian community in Beirut as well as Palestinian communities in northern and southern Lebanon.

Up to date, through its key partners, Mousawat (a specialized organization in the field of disability), Community-based Rehabilitation Association (CBRA), and UNRWA schools, World Vision was able to support approximately 350 children with special needs, like Hussein, to be enrolled in school, out of 850 screened cases.

“My happiness that Hussein is in school cannot be described or measured,” says Rima.

Nor, it appears, can the joy of those going to school, Hussein repeats “Grade 1, G (the name of his class),” happily.

Working together towards inclusion

 “Our project alone could not have seen the light because even though we referred those students to the schools,” explains Zeina Zouein, project manager for World Vision Lebanon. “If the UNRWA did not have a policy to welcome those children, we could not have registered them,” she adds.

Enrollment only the first obstacle

Enrolling children with special needs in school is but the first step, as many schools lack the necessary infrastructure to support children with differing physical abilities and most lack the necessary equipment and specialized staff to support their education.

To face these challenges, the project is working with UNRWA to improve accessibility of its schools, providing a comprehensive package of support to ensure that at least one school in each area will be fully accessible to support students with disability. Teachers are also receiving training to be able to adopt strategies and approaches for child-centered, participatory and inclusive education for all children.

“At World Vision and especially in this project, we dream that all children enter school and enjoy equal opportunities because we know that the first key to life is education,” adds Zouein.

Inclusion and education leave tangible mark on Hussein and his peers

“Hussein is never absent,” says Amal, the Arabic instructor at Ramallah School where Hussein was enrolled. “He is the only one who is never absent,” she adds, nothing the young student’s desire to learn.

Despite the overwhelming darkness at his home, Hussein, in his spare time, likes to draw and dream of his future. Having no desk, he sits on the floor for long hours, without feeling bored of drawing. “When I will grow up, I want to fly,” he says with optimistic eyes, proof that he believes anything thing is possible.